Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The innovation skills you need

When a noted doyen of the Fortune 500 like Coca Cola talks innovation, your ears should perk up.  After all the consumer packaged goods conglomerate has been in business for a long time, and has been successful, but is facing a number of headwinds in its core business.  Selling sugary drinks seems passe, as bottled water, energy drinks and other health conscious foods and beverages seem to be taking over the "share of mouth" or "share of stomach" that food and beverage companies like to talk about.

When a company that has both succeeded at innovation and failed utterly at new product development and launch (remember New Coke?) talks innovation publicly, it's worth listening to.  When the Chief Talent Officer talks about the skills that Coke needs in order to sustain innovation, it's worth listening even closer.  Stacy Panayioutou, Coke's Chief Talent Officer, was recently interviewed by CBS News.  What's interesting in the discussion is the types of skills she says Coke needs in order to succeed in the future.

Reading the article closely

If you read the linked article closely you'll see that Coke, traditionally a bastion of marketing and financial management, is now looking for people with different skill sets.  Panayioutou says that Coke needs people who can spot trends, help Coke analyze what customers want and create more agility and speed.  She also says that Coke has a new strategy and purpose, innovating both around food and drinks as well as issues like packaging.  She needs people who can understand the new strategy and help implement it.  She's looking for people comfortable with creating and promoting change, who can help disrupt existing products and markets.  These skills and traits describe true innovators, people who can understand corporate strategy, find new opportunities through future scanning and customer research and create new products that disrupt the existing markets.

But she goes on to say they need good thinkers, people who are good collaborators and who have good learning agility.  The last skill there - good learning agility - means that people will have to learn new things and then implement them quickly, and then repeat the process, because new opportunities and new information won't come in periodic cycles but will come quickly and repeatedly. 

Fast, Nimble, Agile, Innovative

Not to toot my own horn too much, but there's a methodology aligned to this way of thinking, that my co-author and I outlined in our book OutManeuver.  We made the case that too often American business is focused on head to head competition, where the larger firm hopes to overwhelm or subdue smaller firms through size or mass.  But increasingly large firms are finding that small firms use their agility and speed and innovative skills to bypass this head to head competition.

If the article is to be believed, Coke could have it both ways - size and speed, depth and agility.  Coke has a lot of products and deep intellectual property to leverage, as well as a revered brand.  If it can add to that the speed and agility to address rapidly emerging needs and more innovative thinking, it could become a really formidable competitor. 

Innovators take note:  speed, agility, the ability to learn in iterative cycles, think disruptively, these skills are now valued at what would appear to be large behemoths, companies you may not think of as innovators.  The question will be:  can these firms leverage those skill to great effect, or will their existing cultures squelch the new additions and overwhelm their skills and passion?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:19 AM


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